The central difficulty: What matters is not so much the uptick in testing numbers as whether tests are being introduced into the population more quickly than the virus itself. One doctor we spoke to put it this way: “If we’re doubling our test production every week, but we’re doubling our number of cases in the country every two to four days, we’re never going to catch up.”
To this huge, all-encompassing epistemological problem can be added a slew of smaller ones. There’s the fact that the test currently in ubiquitous use, which relies on a process called polymerase chain reaction to detect viral RNA in a sample, has several downsides. PCR tests are relatively labor-intensive on the laboratory side, which has led to a substantial backlog of kits awaiting testing at many U.S. labs. Several doctors and COVID patients told The Dispatch that COVID-19 tests, which ideally could be turned around in as little as two days, are instead taking eight or 10 in many places, as labs slog through the logjam.
And while the PCR COVID test virtually never turns out false positives, many doctors are reporting a high level of suspected false negative results—where a test does not show a COVID infection despite a person meeting the symptom profile.
Then there’s the fact that the decision about who should be tested and when is extremely decentralized, with individual states, hospitals, and doctors making their own decisions about the best way to allocate limited resources.